Mary is pregnant, Elizabeth is pregnant, history is pregnant.
Advent is traditionally a time of hope, a season of expectation and anticipation.
We are preparing ourselves for the commotion that is Christmas – shrieks of excitement as young children tear open gifts, young and old elbowing for space at the table covered in decorations, burgeoning with food. Advent is meant to be a time to pause. An opportunity to prepare, to reflect on the story behind the celebration.
The Song of Zachariah is an appropriate reading for Advent, as in fact is Luke’s whole Gospel.
Zachariah is a priest in the service of Israel’s temple. His wife Elizabeth is a relative of Mary, the soon to be mother of Jesus. After a lifetime of infertility Elizabeth is now expecting a child.
At this point in the story Zachariah bursts into song, to celebrate God’s favour.
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
Luke 1:68 (NIV)
The first part of the song (vs 67-75) recalls the faithfulness of Israel’s God in her history. But the first verb, the first action in the song, is also pregnant with meaning.
Israel is in dire need of help from on High. The land is under the iron rule of Rome. The Temple – the very heartbeat of the nation – is shrouded in corruption. To make matters worse there has been no significant prophetic voice for centuries. The barrenness that was Elizabeth’s womb echoes Israel’s hopelessness.
Into this silence Zachariah sings.
Translators of this text seem hesitant in their treatment of the phrase ‘because He has come to his people’.
Some say, ‘God has come or visited,’ whilst others prefer, ‘He has looked upon’.
The ambivalence is intentional. The meaning of the word is more nuanced than a simple decision one way or the other. The root of the word means to ‘look upon’ but it has the added meaning of ‘to act’ or ‘to visit’. The sense is of someone looking on, about to act.
This is not a concept foreign to us. Parents often chat and socialise whilst watching their small children play nearby. But how often does the atmosphere of the game change? Sometimes Barbie becomes a baton – it’s now time to intervene.
This song is all about intervention. As Zachariah celebrates what God has done in history, how He has acted faithfully on behalf of His people, he now anticipates what God is about to do. God does not just look on as a distant bystander. It’s a song in stereo – what has happened and what is about to unfold.
Luke’s Gospel begins with Elizabeth pregnant, then Mary is pregnant, and now Israel is pregnant. God is about to act.
As we prepare for the festive seaon I would encourage you to read Zachariah’s Song and perhaps the surrounding chapters. As we anticipate Christmas, we remember how God intervened in history with the birth of His Son. But it’s more than remembering, we are invited into the story as participants. Each year we have the opportunity to anticipate the coming of God – in our lives. Each year we need his intervention, His Grace, His King.